SOME OF JESUS’ lesser-known parables were not addressed to the vast crowds that followed him but were spoken to the chief priests and elders in an attempt to open their hearts, eyes and minds to God’s wonders. Such is the case with a somewhat obscure parable many will hear in church this weekend.
Jesus told a story of a landowner who carefully planted a vineyard and leased it out to tenants. After some time he sent his messengers to the tenants to obtain his share of the harvest. The tenants treated the messengers horribly, beating one, killing another and stoning a third. The landowner sent more messengers, who were treated the same way. Finally, the landowner sent his son, thinking the tenants would respect him, but they conspired to kill him and gain his inheritance.
Jesus asked the opinion of the elders, who all agreed the landowner would destroy those tenants and lease his land out to others who would provide him a harvest. It’s clear Jesus was foreshadowing his own death here, but he also was taking the elders and chief priests to task because they, and the people, had not accepted God’s messengers (the prophets) or God’s Son (Jesus). There is somewhat of an anti-Semitic tone to this, which is why I find it a bit difficult to deal with.
Remember the old saying “don’t shoot the messenger?” The people in the story did exactly that. They killed the messengers and the landowner’s son. A quick Google search told me “don’t shoot the messenger” didn’t originate with this parable but came from ancient wartime when you would allow a messenger from the enemy camp to relay a message to you unharmed. Nevertheless, the saying fits for Jesus’ parable and gives us something to consider in how we respond to God’s messengers in our lives.
The prophets were the messengers of whom Jesus spoke, and they were killed by those who did not want to hear their message. Jesus was speaking of himself as the son in the story.
It seems as if he was speaking only of long-ago events, so how do we fit into the story today? Surely we would never kill a prophet in our midst even if we didn’t like what he or she said. We would never kill the Son of God should he come among us. Sometimes, though, we do something nearly as bad: We ignore them completely.
Prophets rise among us calling us to listen to God’s voice, and we pay no attention. They challenge us to be faithful disciples, and we disregard them. Jesus continually invites us to share in his Eucharist each Sunday, and thousands of people go on with their lives as if they couldn’t care less. But God remains ever hopeful, like the father in the story of the prodigal son waiting for his child to come to his senses and return, and we continue down the path of selfishness searching for the peace we can find only with God.
We may not “shoot the messenger,” but we sometimes do a pretty good job of pretending he or she is not there. Only when we learn to respect and heed God’s messengers will we experience the life, peace and joy we seek.